A tale of being human
FICTION: EILEEN BATTERSBYreviews The VagrantsBy Yiyun Li 4th Estate, 337pp, £12.99
ALL IT TAKES is one act, one horrible deed so repulsive as to shame and lessen any individual who even hears about it, never mind was involved. Such a crime is perpetrated in this astonishing novel, a book that opens our eyes and forces us to think. The sheer power of The Vagrantshas to be experienced at first hand, reading a review is meaningless, as is the writing of one. The narrative tears strips off the reader, each page brings us closer to the bone, to the very gut of existence and the inevitable question – how can such things happen?
Stories can and do leave us shaken and vulnerable; this is one of those tales, polemic as art, art as polemic. The gifted Chinese writer Yiyun Li’s devastating first novel is all the more remarkable for the calm, understated telling; the simple, graceful eloquence of the language with its dignified sense of purpose. It is possible to hear the author’s voice, thoughtful, considered, barely louder than a whisper, yet no less urgent for that. Oh yes, she has a story and one that she has thought long and hard about. She has exceeded art. Here is a book laden with responsibility; a book about what being human actually amounts to.
Life in a Chinese industrial town in the late 1970’s had been continuing much as it had for generations, absorbing each political wave in turn. This storm will be different. An elderly teacher wakes on March 21st 1979. Aware that his wife beside him is quietly sobbing, he knows that it is the day of the Equinox, “this day, when neither the sun nor its shadow reigned.” It is also the day of his daughter’s execution.
Gu Shan is 28 and has spent that past decade in jail for her anti-communist activities. Now she will die. Yiyun Li makes no attempt to idealize Gu Shan. She records her brutality during her stint as a Red Guard, the times she physically beat people, including the mother of one of the main characters. The shame she has brought on her parents weighs them down like a stone.
Her father has been reduced to grieving for the stranger his daughter, Gu Shan, has become.
“Teacher Gu had long ago ceased to understand the person bearing that name. He and his wife had been timid, law-abiding citizens all their lives. Since the age of fourteen, Shan had been wild with passions he could not grasp, first a fanatic believer in Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution, and later an adamant nonbeliever and a harsh critic of her generation’s revolutionary zeal. In ancient tales she could have been one of those divine creatures who borrow their mother’s wombs to enter the mortal world and make a name for themselves, as a heroine or a devil, depending on the intention of the heavenly powers.”
Her mother’s attempts to prepare a traditional mourning for this lost daughter by burning a pile of her clothes immediately introduces one of the major themes – that of the tension between the old superstitions and the dehumanized dictates of communism. The parents emerge as heartbreakingly bewildered; the father as an intellectual has his own way of dealing with the tragedy, his wife is that of a mother who simply can’t accept what has happened. The narrative quickly opens out from this intense family situation to the wider world of the town and its inhabitants.
A large cast of characters are introduced and convincingly developed, an old couple, the vagrants of the title; Bashi, a sexually troubled and destructive youth; Tong, a displaced child who has lost his dog; Nini, the disfigured and unwanted 12-year-old girl treated as a servant by her parents; Kwen, a vicious handyman; Kai, a glamorous young female propaganda announcer who takes a courageous stand; her weak husband and other minor, though no less well drawn, players. Although there are stories within stories, at no time does Yiyun Li simply string a series of narratives together. This novel is cohesively well structured and never forced, there is no melodrama. No praise is too high, from the opening sentence to the chilling final quip uttered by a character who is well on the road to hell.
In fairness to Yiyun Li, nothing in her outstanding collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers(2005), which won a number of major awards including the Guardian First Book Award and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, would suggest that she would have written a novel such as this. It is a remarkable performance, dark, violent, utterly candid and utterly human. Born in China and educated at Beijing University before arriving in the United States in 1996, Yiyun Li has referred to the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989, when student protesters were massacred, as a life-shaping experience for her. She was 17 at the time. Now settled in California, she has joined that elite band of young American writers who can draw on a native culture as well as an adopted one.
Yiyun Li was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young American novelists in 2007 before she had published a novel. In the light of this book her inclusion has proved prophetic indeed. On all counts this is a brave work, an equal of Jiang Rong’s more autobiographically based Wolf Totem which was published in English last year. These books should be read in tandem in that both look at what happens when a culture is suppressed from the inside.
As The Vagrantsis based on a true story it does no disservice to note how that event is used as a defining device. Gu Shan’s execution is in itself a form of grotesque theatre, a political gesture which is used to confirm the collective loyalties of the citizens of a provincial town towards a brutal government that has no interest in the individual.
While the old mother weeps, others see the injustice. Gu Shan, after ten years imprisonment, has lost her mind. But the authorities are taking no chances and sever her vocal cords to prevent her chanting anti-government slogans. It gets worse. Gu Shan is taken to be shot but only after her kidneys have been removed; the recipient, a highly placed official, had insisted on a living donor.
Her parents employ a local handyman to take care of her body, but he merely violates the already mutilated corpse. It is a compelling scene, brilliantly handled and it brings together two characters who share a grim secret, and are later reunited through their crime.
Countless aspects of this crafted, coherent book will impress; the plotting of the mutually dependent relationship which develops between the destructive youth Bashi and desperate Nini, the girl no one else wants, is exceptional. Throughout the novel the characterisation is pitch perfect, as is the dialogue; the story is grim yet Yiyun Li sustains a tone of neutral observation and a sense of daily life emerges.
As the narrative moves effortlessly between the various characters, Yiyun ensures that the reader wants to find out about everyone, nothing is superfluous. It is as if we are there, part of the shame, part of the terror. A group decide to protest against the execution of Gu Shan; the protestors are not excusing her life, but they are objecting to her death because of what it reveals about their society.
The anger informing the narrative is subtle; if the officials are ridiculous, the enforcement of their power, alas, is not.
That matter of fact understatement is central to Yiyun Li’s magic. In common with another disciple of William Trevor, fellow Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award winner, Jhumpa Lahiri, who also shuns tricks and stylistic flamboyance, that balanced approach lies in the rejection of all affectation.
The Vagrantsresounds with truths as Teacher Gu says to his wife when she refers to their daughter as a martyr: “A martyr serves a cause as a puppet serves a show. If you look at history, as no one in this country does anymore, a martyr has always served the purpose of deception on a grand scale, be it a religion or an ideology.”
Quietly, insistently and shockingly, a natural story teller has dissected a given fact and revealed many more layers.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times